Headline: Maryland scraps gun "fingerprint" database after 15 failed years

The Baltimore Sun reported recently that, after millions of wasted tax-payer dollars, the State of Maryland has officially decided that its 15-year effort to store and catalog the "fingerprints" of thousands of handguns was a failure.

From the article:

Since 2000, the state required that gun manufacturers fire every handgun to be sold here and send the spent bullet casing to authorities. The idea was to build a database of "ballistic fingerprints" to help solve future crimes.

But the system — plagued by technological problems — never solved a single case. Now the hundreds of thousands of accumulated casings could be sold for scrap.


In a[sic] old fallout shelter beneath Maryland State Police headquarters in Pikesville, the state has amassed more than 300,000 bullet casings, one from each new handgun sold here since the law took effect. They fill three cavernous rooms secured by a common combination lock.

Each casing was meticulously stamped with a bar code, sealed in its own envelope and filed in boxes stacked from floor to ceiling. Forensic scientists photographed the casings in hopes the system would someday identify the owner of a gun fired at a crime scene. The system cost an estimated $5 million to set up and operate over the years.

But the computerized system designed to sort and match the images never worked as envisioned. In 2007, the state stopped bothering to take the photographs, though hundreds of thousands more casings kept piling up in the fallout shelter.

According to the article, the system Maryland bought created images so imprecise that when an investigator submitted a crime scene casing, the database software would sometimes spit out hundreds of matches. The state sued the manufacturer in 2009 for $1.9 million, settling three years later for $390,000.

New York followed Maryland's lead and created a similar database, but that state pulled funding for the project in 2012 when it, too, had no success.

By then, it had been clear for years that the efforts weren't working. In 2008, the Department of Justice asked the National Research Council to study the value in creating a national ballistics database with fingerprints from every gun. Researchers, after reviewing the Maryland and New York programs, concluded that such an endeavor would be impractical and a waste of money.

The Sun reports the ballistic fingerprinting law was repealed effective Oct. 1, ending the requirement that spent casings be sent in. The General Assembly, in repealing the law, authorized the state police to sell off its inventory for scrap.

Frank Sloane, owner of Pasadena Gun & Pawn in Anne Arundel County, is quoted as saying "The database "was a waste. There's things that they could have done that would have made sense. This didn't make any sense." But there are a few people who still don't agree, despite the fact that NOT ONE crime was solved by this money pit.

"Obviously, I'm disappointed," said former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat whose administration pushed for the database to fulfill a campaign promise. "It's a little unfortunate, in that logic and common sense suggest that it would be a good crime-fighting tool.

Actually, there was plenty of evidence available to Glendening at the time which proved that it this was an exercise neither in logic nor common sense, yet note that he STILL seems to believe in the idea, as does Zach Suber, a supervisor and forensic scientist for the Maryland State Police:

[Suber] says the process "could have been tweaked" to make it more effective. It's still possible, Suber says, that the collection of casings could have greater forensic value in the future.

That's because, on average, most guns used in crimes were bought nearly 15 years prior, according to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. By the time they end up on the street, they've often been stolen and resold illegally.

So the oldest ballistic fingerprints in Maryland's collection are just now reaching the age where the guns they identify may be falling into a criminal's hands, Suber said. He said the state police have no immediate plans to turn the collection into scrap metal, as the legislature suggested.

The trouble with Suber's argument is that even the Fraternal Order of Police admits that "ballistic imprints, unlike fingerprints and DNA, can be altered, either deliberately or simply through normal use." (The FOP is on record in opposition to a national ballistic registration system for exactly this reason).

The article documents that previous repeal attempts were defeated after police argued that the system still had potential. So why does Suber still hold on to hope that, after 15 years of use, he might finally find a gun that can be matched? Why, after all this money wasted, and after what has been learned over the past 15 years, is he going to refuse to allow taxpayers to get even a little of their money back by scrapping all the brass?

Ironically, it may have been passage of still more gun control laws in Maryland which finally doomed the program once and for all. The article notes that "a sweeping gun-control law passed in 2013 — and the surge in gun sales that resulted — created a backlog and state police had to hire eight people just to organize the nearly 60,000 bullet casings sent in that year.

Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Democrat, says that by the time repealing it came up for a hearing again, "the police came in and said it was useless. No one contradicted that."

Chad D. Baus is the Buckeye Firearms Association Secretary, BFA PAC Vice Chairman, and an NRA-certified firearms instructor. He is the editor of BuckeyeFirearms.org, which received the Outdoor Writers of Ohio 2013 Supporting Member Award for Best Website.

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